Friday, September 30, 2022

We Must Demand Play-Based Education Because, Damn It, That's What The Evidence Tells Us

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Economic Forum, and Unicef (and according to the dubious measurement of standardized test scores) Finland has the best schools in the world. They have achieved this status by building their educational system on evidence. The US languishes around the middle of the pack, often falling into the bottom half according to some measures. We have achieved this lack of success by relying upon the busy-body guesswork of policy makers, billionaire dilettantes, and administrators who listen to them.

It shouldn't be surprising that the system based on evidence, on research, on reality, would outperform the one based on the fantasies and feelings of people who are not professional educators. In Finland, they do not try to teach kindergarteners to read because the evidence tells us that formal literacy instruction should not start until at least the age of seven and that children who are compelled into it too early often suffer emotionally and academically in the long run. In the US we are forcing kindergartners, and even preschoolers, to learn to read. There is no, as in zero, research that finds longterm gains from teaching to read in kindergarten. In fact, the research that has been done tends to find early instruction reduces literacy in later years.

The evidence tells us that early childhood education should focus on equity, happiness, well-being and joy in learning. This is what Finland has done by basing their educational model on childhood play, which is, again according to the overwhelming preponderance of research, the gold standard. The US has based its early childhood education on standardized testing, increased "instructional time," bottoms-in-your-seats carrot-and-stick standardization, and an ever-narrowing focus on literacy and math despite the evidence that it causes longterm harm to children, because people in power who know nothing about education think that sounds good to them.

We are through the looking glass here. We are doing harm to our children. We are subjecting them to decades of "education" that is, again according to the evidence, doing them far more harm than good, while children in other countries are being provided the best education available because the adults are adult enough to look at reality and act accordingly.

This is not my feeling. This is not my opinion. This is not my philosophy. These are the facts as far as we can currently determine them. It is cruel, even abusive, to base our educational system on other people's feelings and fantasies, even if they are rich and powerful. For the sake of our children, we must demand play-based education because, damn it, that's what the evidence tells us.

(Please click the links in this post. Most of them take you to articles, research, and papers that provide even further links into the evidence.)


The science tells us that young children learn everything they need to learn through play, through their self-selected activities, through asking and answering their own questions. Whether you are just starting out as a play-based educator, are a veteran of play, or are a parent/caregiver interested in providing children a playful childhood, please consider joining us. Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning is a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed to make you think deeply about the role you play in the lives of children, and give you the inspiration, insight and tools needed to create an environment of genuine play for the children in your life. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, September 29, 2022

Treating Children Like People

I sometimes forget how radical our ideas are about young children. I forget that not everyone trusts children even if most people say they do. I forget that most adults are convinced that children must be guided, coerced, tricked or otherwise manipulated to do "right" things, even as they genuinely profess a belief in their innate goodness. I forget that out there, outside our bubble, grown-ups might proudly say they want "kids to be kids," yet their behavior demonstrates that they can't imagine them thriving absent a background of near constant correction, "good jobs," and unsolicited advice. Most people think that we agree with one another about children, but once we get talking, they start to realize that what we're saying is radical.

It's the radical idea that children are fully formed people, due the rights and respect due to all the other people. When we treat adults as untrustworthy, when we seek to guide, coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate them, when we correct or offer false praise or unsolicited advice, we are generally considered to be jerks of the highest order. Yet somehow, many of us, maybe most of us, live in a world in which it's considered normal to treat children this way.

Do they need us when they're young? Of course they do, in the way that seeds need gardeners to make sure the soil is well-tended, that it is protected, and that it gets enough water, but the growing, the sprouting, the leafing, the budding, the blooming, and the fruiting is up to the plant.

I am spending more time these days outside of our bubble, interacting with adults who seem to genuinely want to do the right thing by children, to do better by children, but who are stuck with misguided ideas of what children are. They have no notion that, from an historical perspective, what they think is normal is not: for children to spend their days doing what the grown-ups tell them to do, to sit still, to spend all those hours indoors, to move from place to place driven by a schedule rather than curiosity. Recently, I was in a meeting with a pair of partners interested in investing in educational matters. Their own children had both been in cooperative preschools like the one in which I taught for nearly 20 years. One of them said, "On my first day working in the classroom I was down on my knees helping the kids build with blocks. Teacher Sandi tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'This is the children's project, not yours.' That was a real eye-opener for me."

I know Teacher Sandi. I know exactly how she said it. I've done it myself, often to highly accomplished professional people "slumming" for a day in the classroom. This kind of thing, as simple and as obvious as it sounds to those of us who have dedicated our lives to progressive play-based education, is for most people still a radical idea. Sometimes the thought of making the changes that need to happen seems overwhelming. It makes me want to crawl back into the bubble and stay there, focusing on the children of the parents who get it. But then I'm encouraged by how readily this radical idea can also become an "eye-opener," just as it was for me as I set out on the same journey more than two decades ago, and just as it continues to be.

Most of what I've learned from and about young children over the past two decades comes down to un-learning the modern lessons of parenting, schooling, and the capabilities of children. I've discovered that if I am to do right by children I must release control, shut up and listen, get out of their way, and love them. And whenever I'm challenged, whenever things are not going well, I've discovered that the answer always lies in returning to the radical idea of treating children like people.


Treating children like people stands at the center of play-based learning. Please join this new cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a popular 6-week foundational course on my play-based pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

I Want To Help You Develop Your Own Unique Approach To Play-Based Learning

I started this blog in 2009 simply because I'd written a couple articles for Seattle's Child magazine that I thought were pretty good and felt they deserved a life beyond the recycling bin. That was the entirety of my ambition. This blog would provide an online home for these two articles. Period. They didn't have any readers beyond my friends and family, and that was fine because that's all I expected.

Before long, however, I began adding posts, inspired by the children as they spent their days playing at Woodland Park. It became a place where I told their stories, where I told my stories, and where I told our stories. As the only teacher in this school owned by the parents who enrolled their kids, I began to crave connection with other educators who felt as I did, who were learning from young children as they played. It took some hunting back then, but I finally found a handful other educators scattered around the globe that were, like me, celebrating play-based learning.

The cocktail of being a relatively new teacher, children at play, and these inspiring women, who to this day I think of as sisters, was a heady one. Our little informal collective began to inspire one another. We shared ideas and projects. We challenged one another. We one-upped one another. We had each felt alone in our play-based worlds, but now that we had found one another we began to realize that maybe we weren't crazy after all. In a world in which preschool was becoming increasingly academic and, frankly, hard-hearted, we were creating, in our own ways, and in our own corners of the globe, the opposite.

We were trusting children.

We were following children.

We were embracing this radical idea that, through play, through their self-selected activities, the children in our care were learning to be self-motived, to work well with others, to be critical thinkers, and, most of all, to love learning. 

Slowly at first, then suddenly, we all began to see our audiences grow. There were others like us! I guess I knew that something big was happening in 2013 when I was invited to speak in Athens Greece where a man who I now count as a dear friend, John Yiannoudis, had started his own urban preschool based, he told me, "on your philosophy." 

I have a philosophy?

When I met John face-to-face he confessed, "At first I thought, 'Who is this crazy guy in a red cape doing all these crazy things with kids?' But then I started reading your posts and realized that this is what I wanted for my own daughter."

John had organized an event at which I was the only speaker, scheduled for 6 pm on a Friday night, and the venue he had rented seated 400 people. Talk about crazy! When I saw all those empty seats on the day before the event I felt sorry for him. I imagined how disappointed he was going to be. There was no way, I thought, that more than a couple dozen people would turn out for this event featuring an English-speaking preschool teacher from a little cooperative school halfway around the world. 

When the day arrived, however, there were people sitting in the aisles. Maybe this idea of play-based learning wasn't so crazy after all.

Over the years, as I've continued to write, I've tried, each day, to share something true, something I've learned, or something about which I still have questions. And nearly every day someone tells me, echoing John, that they want "this" for the children in their lives -- play. Over the years I've received thousands of messages from educators and parents asking how to "do what you do."

This is the motivation behind my new 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, in which I share my "philosophy," one that places the pure joy of learning at the center. In this course, I provide the details, insights, and reasons behind my unique approach to child-led, play-based learning, with the idea of helping you to develop your own unique approach, one that honors the children and families in your life.

My career as an educator has been an accidental one in many ways. I was lucky to find my way to where I am. I'm grateful to my readers, my mentors, my blog sisters, and especially the families and children who continue to inspire me to look deeper, to think more radically, and, ultimately, play harder. You have helped me realize that I do have a philosophy, one that has emerged one blog post at a time, one question at a time, one epiphany at a time. I've been sharing it little by little for well over a decade now, scattered over 4000 posts, two books, and hundreds of talks. This new course is my attempt to pull it all together in one place, not so that you can do what I do, but rather so that you can do what's best for the children in your life, which is, as always, to let them play.


Please join the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based learning pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

"Children Do Not Like Being Incompetent Any More Than They Like Being Ignorant"

"Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn how to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call "letting the child be a child." ~John Holt

As a two-year-old, Angus found school disappointing. 

"He likes school," his mother told me one day as we watched him play alone in his own corner of the playground, "But he'd like it a lot better without the other kids." She said it with a chuckle, one that told me she appreciated it as an eccentricity. I didn't tell her that it's quite common for children her son's age to feel that way mainly because to do so would have been to risk robbing her of her delight.

As a cooperative school, Angus' mother was always welcome in the classroom and she had so far opted to be there every day. During the first week of school she told me of how she had prepared Angus by telling him that school was a place where he would learn stuff. He had interpreted this to mean that he was going to learn to drive a Metro bus.

He was passionate about Metro buses. He was disdainful of school busses. And he actively disliked the toy school school busses we had in the classroom. He came by his driving interest honestly. Riding Metro was often how he and his mother spent their days away from preschool. Sometimes they would choose a destination, figure out their route, then execute their plan. Other times, they would simply choose a specific line out of curiosity and ride it to see where it went. 

One day, I told him I needed to get to my doctor's office in Lake City after school and he informed me which buses I would need to take to get there from the school. When I told him I had to go home first, he asked me where I lived, then recalculated based on this new starting point. One day as we played together I began to quiz him on bus routes. "Where does the 62 go?" "How about the 550?" As far as I could tell, he knew his stuff.

After absorbing the disappointment of not getting to learn to drive a bus, he settled into a routine of pretending to be a bus driver, sitting alone, usually with his back to the rest of us, employing whatever circular shaped object he could find as a steering wheel. To be allowed into his private world one had to wait until he "stopped" and opened the door for you. His expectation was then that you sat behind him. He  would then speak to you, eyes forward, hands on the wheel. When he was done with you, he would inform you that you had arrived at your stop, then pantomime opening the door to let you out.

As he got older, he began to "drive" his bus around the playground (i.e., holding his steering wheel and running). Before long he had established several stops. Children would often wait at one of the stops for Angus, who would transport them (i.e., the children ran along behind him) to as near their destinations as the route would allow. He spent one morning making construction paper "Orca Cards," which is what Metro calls its passes, and distributed them to his classmates. It irritated him that he had to make new ones the following day. "They're supposed to keep them in their wallets!" He carried a wallet in which he carried his own real and pretend Orca Cards. Eventually, other children were inspired to start their own bus routes and for a time we had an entire mass transit system on our playground.

As he got older, he became interested in other things, including the other kids, but never did take much of an interest in any of our toys. When he played "construction," he eschewed such childish things as blocks and Legos. He needed real "lumber," a hammer, a saw, and "a lot of nails." I once offered him a yellow costume construction worker helmet, but he rejected it with the wave of his hand. When his attentions turned to insects, only the real things would do. No picture books or plastic bugs for him. He was even suspicious of the lady bugs we raised in the classroom from larva because we kept them indoors rather than outdoors. He didn't use the words "natural habitat," but it was there in his assessment of the situation.

Angus expressed himself well, even as a two-year-old which caused the other adults to consider him "advanced" or even "gifted," but the more I got to know him over the years, the more I came to understand him as simply more "natural" than most of his classmates. I once visited his home. There were no toys in evidence, no safety gates, and no childish art taped up on the walls. The only things that might have caused one to suspect a child lived there were the muddy holes dug in the backyard, the odd collections of household items to be spied around the house, and the bedroom wall covered in framed photographs of Metro busses.

Today, when I hear the expression, "Let the child be a child," Angus is the first person who comes to mind.


Please join the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based learning pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, September 26, 2022

The Key To Our Deeper Sense Of Self

As a child, my family moved around a lot. I'd called four places home before my first day of kindergarten. I attended three different elementary schools and three different middle schools. My parents, themselves, had grown up in a small, tightly-knit farming community in which everyone knew everyone. To this day, they are still in touch with some of their childhood friends. In contrast, I'm in touch with none of mine. In fact, I can't even remember the names of some of the kids I once called "best friend."

I sometimes wonder if I've missed out on something, especially when my wife gets together with her lifelong besties, but the experience of being the "new kid" is so much a part of who I am that I can't really imagine what it would be like to share such a long history with anyone other than family members. My greatest life lesson, I think, was how to make new friends wherever I go.

For this I credit my mother. Mom was determined that we would have friends wherever we went. If the new neighbors didn't show up on the front porch with casseroles, she would make her own casseroles and show up on theirs. She went out of her way to connect with other families with kids. As we got older, she signed us up for team sports wherever we moved, not as a way to learn the dubious lessons of competition, but rather so that we would have the opportunity to make friends. 

Not everyone enjoys sports, but fortunately we did, and throughout my childhood, my social life tended to emerge not through school, but rather through baseball, soccer, football, basketball, and swimming. Of course, there was competition when another team would come to play, but the core of the experience was daily practice where we built relationships with one another around the cooperation of teamwork. There was never any expectation that we would go on to become professional athletes, nor were we graded or tested. The idea was to have fun with friends.

Some time ago, before I began my journey as an educator, in the spirit of paying it forward, I volunteered to coach what is called a "select" baseball team comprised of middle schoolers only to find that youth sports have changed in horrible ways. These kids and their parents already had their eyes on the big leagues, or missing that, at least college scholarships. It was an unpleasant experience for me, but even more so for the kids who, frankly, demonstrated very little joy, and even less friendship. This wasn't the baseball I grew up knowing. When I tried to lighten things up, parents would pull me aside to let me know that they appreciated the sentiment, but really, they didn't want their child to "miss the opportunity," so, you know, knuckle down. Ugh.

One of the foundations upon which our educational system is built is the myth that we live in a "competitive society" so we must get the kids ready for that. Now, I've never been a stock market day trader, nor have I had the misfortune of being part of a corporate hierarchy. I've never been a professional athlete or a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race. Indeed, the only time that I found myself in genuine, ongoing competition with my fellow humans was during my time in school and only then when I began to understand that I was being judged (graded, tested) in comparison to my classmates. But outside of school, I've found that competition beyond the occasional friendly board game, is not a meaningful part of my life.

Mister Rogers once said, "You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."

Competition only gives us, at best, a superficial sense of who we are. It teaches us that if we aren't a winner then we're a loser. But even more harmful is competition's lesson that our fellow humans are impediments, stepping stones, and rivals. It makes "things" of them, it dehumanizes them, and it ultimately prevents and perverts our relationships. What my mother knew was that the only way one can ever discover the key to that deeper sense of self is through relationships.

For the most part, those of us who work with young children understand what my mother understood: relationships are the foundation for any life worth living. When we observe children at play, we see that they are driven, not to competition, but rather to cooperation and teamwork. That is where they find joy. When competition emerges, it always does so as both a threat to their games as well as their relationships. In these cases, when we allow the children to solve their own problems, the unpleasantly competitive games either come to an end as children exercise their freedom to quit, or, impressively, they scramble to remove the prospect of winners and losers, restoring the cooperative balance to their game. 

This, not competition, is the reality I've discovered everywhere I've gone in life. It's inhuman systems, like conventional schooling, that create the illusion that competition is everywhere. When it's just us humans playing together, the only thing that matters are our relationships, built through cooperation and teamwork. And through that our deep sense of self emerges as the only guide we will ever need to make choices that will bring us joy.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, September 23, 2022

What I Learned When I Declined The Urge To Blather

Two freshly-minted three-year-olds were playing on the floor, not together, but near one another. I was lying amidst them, fiddling with whatever came to hand. The boy picked up a toy that was meant to be a tiny version of the actual cast iron hand pump we have on our playground. After a moment, the boy said, perhaps to me, "Hey, it's a pump!"

The girl responded, "I want it."

That's what we had been encouraging kids to do all year, ask for things they want rather than just snatching them. The boy continued playing with the toy pump without saying a word. I briefly considered saying, "When you're finished with that, she wants it," but let the urge pass. The boy silently played with the toy for 30 seconds longer, then unceremoniously handed it to her. I was going to say something about that, some words of acknowledgement or even praise, but again thought better of it.

A five-year-old once told me, unprompted, as if it was something he'd given a lot of thought, "I don't like doing things people tell me to do. I like thinking of them myself and then doing them." Of course, that's how we all feel, right through our lives.

Adults say entirely too much to children, most of it either commands, which no one likes, or blather, to which no one listens. For whatever reason, we seem to feel that children are not listening simply because they don't respond to things like well-trained dogs. When the boy hadn't instantly acknowledged the girl's statement that she wanted the toy by replying, "I'm using it" or "You can use it when I'm done" or by simply handing it over, I was sorely tempted to say something, to amplify or translate or suggest. It was almost as if that silent space left after "I want it" was there for me to fill with blather.

And I know that whatever I said would have been blather because by remaining silent, I discovered that not only had the boy been listening, but it had prompted him to think. In that space of silence, he considered the information she had provided him, thought of what to do himself, and did it. He needed no reward from me, no pat on the back or "Good job," no benevolent overlord wielding carrots, sticks, commands, or blather.

It was apparent that these kids understood that this is how free and equal humans are meant to live together: thinking of things themselves and doing them, and that is its own reward.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Children Learning from Children

I feel that it's important for us, as early childhood educators, to stay abreast of the latest research in our profession (all of which supports a play-based approach) as well as some of the other areas of cognitive and neuroscience (all of which supports a play-based approach).

Here is some densely worded support for play-based learning from one of the world's top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio:

Usually the brain is assumed to be a passive recording medium, like film . . . This is pure fiction . . . The organism (the body and its brain) interacts with objects, and the brain reacts to the interaction. Rather than making a record of an entity's structure, the brain actually records the multiple consequences of the organism's interactions with the entity. What we memorize of our encounter with a given object is not just its visual structure as mapped in optical images of the retina. The following are also needed: first, the sensorimotor patterns associated with viewing the object (such as eye and neck movements or whole-body movements, if applicable); second, the sensorimotor pattern associated with touching and manipulating the object (if applicable); third, the sensorimotor pattern resulting from the evocation of previous acquired memories pertinent to the object; fourth, the sensorimotor patterns related to the triggering of emotions and feelings relative to the object . . . What we refer to as the memory of an object is the composite memory of the sensory and motor activities related to the interaction between the organism and the object during a certain period of time.

All that sensorimotor stuff is what we in the preschool world call play.

Or as Damasio writes, "The fact that we perceive by engagement, rather than passive receptivity, is the secret of the "Proustian effect" . . . the reason why we often recall contexts rather than just isolated things." And speaking of Proust, I also think it's important that we all read Proust because he has come as close as humanly possible, in fiction, to showing us how the human mind really works.

I also think we should all know at least a little something about those who came before us, like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia system of early childhood education.

One of the things I find most useful from Malaguzzi's work, for instance, is the concept that every child has three teachers: adults, the environment, and other children. There is a tendency for us to focus on adult teachers, but the truth is that when children are allowed to play, the environment and other children have far more influence than the heavy hand of the adult. They are far more likely to accommodate all that sensorimotor stuff.

The photo at the top of this post is from 1963. I'm the bigger child holding the book, apparently reading to my newborn baby brother. I'm not actually reading, of course. That ability wouldn't come until I was closer to six or seven, which is when the developmental window for reading tends, on average, to open. But I had already learned about reading from an adult, my mother, and now I was, in turn teaching my brother everything I knew about reading. According to mom, I continued "reading" to him until well after I was actually reading. When my brother entered first grade, his adult teacher found that he was already well beyond his classmates. I'm not saying it was all due to my child-to-child teaching, but our family likes to think so.

When I reflect on my own childhood, I can honestly say that I learned at least as much from other children as I did from adults.

I've done my reading, I've taken classes and workshops, and I try to expose myself to a wide variety of people. I learn a lot from other adults and the environments in which I find myself, but I've often said that most of what I've learned about the world, and most of what I've written about here on the blog for the past 13 years, I've learned from children. I emphasize most. Malaguzzi was writing and thinking about children, but I'm convinced that the world would be a better place if more adults turned to children as their teachers.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Judging Others Is A Sucker's Game

Judging by their behavior, we can say that plants are intelligent. They turn toward the sun because they need the light. They absorb necessary nutrients from the soil. They communicate with one another, share resources, and can even learn through experience. These are all behaviors we've come to associate with intelligence, although when it comes right down to it, we can never know what goes on inside their . . . Well, they don't have brains, so unless we're missing something (and it's quite possible we are), they don't have the sort of centrally organized system of intelligence that humans seem to have. This would mean that plants likely don't have minds either, that undeniable, yet elusive aspect of our own experience that enables us to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.

So, while we can see from their behavior that plants are probably intelligent, it is unlikely that the plants themselves know they are intelligent.

I would understand if you're still dubious, many, if not most, scientists are dubious. But that is always the challenge of thinking about the internal life of others, be they plants or animals: we are always on the outside and we can only understand what they show us through their behavior, which includes everything from the turning of a flower head toward the sun, clenching sphnicter muscles in fear, or the hearing the words our fellow humans might use to communicate about their internal states. 

In other words, when it comes to understanding the intelligence, thinking, or feelings of others, we are always guessing about what is going on inside someone else. I'm not saying that we can't come close or that we can't at least guess correctly about some aspect of the internal state of others, but the truth is that we struggle to even be certain about own own intelligence, thinking, and feelings, so who are we to judge?

But that's exactly what we do: judge others. When we do, we have no choice but to do so through the filter of our own minds. We can't actually see what a child sees, for instance, because what is taken in by their eyes and processed by their brain and mind is a completely internal process, one to which we have no direct access. What we do instead when we judge them is see with our own eyes that a child is looking toward a certain object, then process that through our own brain and mind, assuming that the child's process is similar to our own. It's from our own internal process, not the child's, that we form our judgements, which are, by definition, largely inaccurate.

If it sounds like I'm saying that judging others is a suckers game, then you get my point.

Despite the impossibility of ever accurately knowing what is going on inside another person, as educators, we are nevertheless often charged with sitting in judgement of children. We are expected to grade, test, or otherwise assess their intelligence and knowledge. At best, however, we can shed light on but the tiniest sliver of what their own minds know about themselves and the world around them. In many ways, the entirety of  standard schooling is a massive attempt to judge the unjudgeable. Most curricula are created as a way to control the scope of what we are to judge, narrowing the infiniteness of what there is to know and think down to something we can easily measure. We make it into a competition so that we can determine the winners and losers under the illusion that this will make our judgements more definite. No matter how careful we are, our judgements become easy labels that we hang on children, and that, too often, become their limitations.

The hubris to think that we can know what another person learns, is the greatest flaw in how we attempt to do education. Learning is a personal, internal process, one that involves an ongoing dialog between the outside world, our nervous system (including the brain and its product, the mind), and the rest of our bodies. We might provide hints and suggestions through our behaviors (including our words) but that is the merest tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's only when we release others from the dictates of our judgements that we create the space in which they are free to learn at full capacity.

None of us can learn on behalf of another, but we have never failed to learn alongside one another, which is, in my view, the proper stance of an educator toward a child.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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